All's well that ends well, right? That was certainly the story of the game for the Buccaneers, who came out flat for the first half against the division-rival Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. It wasn't pretty for the first two quarters and the Bucs found themselves down 17-0 at halftime.
But as we know now, that was not at all indicative of what was to come. The Bucs managed over 400 yards of offense before all was said and done. The defense came alive in the second half, stifling a rolling Atlanta offense and the Bucs managed 31 points to overtake the Falcons. The victory inched them closer still to the coveted postseason as they now get ready to take on the Lions in Detroit.
So, what was the deal? How did they do it? Read on for a couple major takeaways from the Bucs' ninth win of the season.
1. Holy comeback, Batman.
Quarterback Tom Brady is known as "The Comeback Kid" for a reason. I don't think there's a better example of that than the fact that overcoming Sunday's 17-point deficit seems just routine at this point, doesn't it? I mean, it isn't even the most impressive comeback against the Atlanta Falcons Brady has ever accomplished (ok, fine, I'm done).
Even with the Buccaneers shut out in the first half – no one panicked. Myself included. Inside linebacker Devin White said it after the game: "I just know any time you've got TB on your side, he's going to make the play when it's time to make the play. It might start a little slow, but I know when it's time to come through for us he's going to come through. Every time we needed him to come through, he done come through."
Head Coach Bruce Arians went so far as to say Brady was 'calm' in the locker room at halftime. "He was just like, let's go out there and make a play."
Again, business as usual.
But what wasn't 'usual' was the way Brady absolutely exploded in the second half with 320 yards on 21 completions, including two touchdowns and a 131.4 passer rating. Those 320 yards were the most in a half by a Tampa Bay quarterback since at least 1991. Brady's 320 second-half passing yards are the most by any quarterback in a second half this season. Where Brady didn't throw beyond 14 yards in the first half, he was dropping 46-yard touchdown bombs and hitting Mike Evans for 39-yard completions that set up touchdowns. Evans was over 100 yards on the day. The Bucs had just five first downs in the first half and 60 yards of total offense. They finished with 27 first downs and 416 all-purpose yards.
Meanwhile, while the offense went to work, the defense was able to stifle the Falcons offense, holding them to just 10 points in the second half. Atlanta didn't convert a single third down in the last two quarters.
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2. Devin White proved the catalyst the defense needed.
White is on pace for some truly historic numbers as far as inside linebackers are concerned. But his impact reaches beyond the stat sheet and that was evident on Sunday when White was able to get the defense going in the latter part of the game. He was helped a bit by his coach, Todd Bowles, who looked at White coming out of halftime and said to him, "You're about to take this game over."
White ended up with 12 total tackles and three sacks, along with two passes defensed. The three sacks put him at 8.0 on the season, which is by far and away the most of any player at his position. Overall, he's tied with teammate Shaq Barrett among others for the 11th most sacks in the league. Even more impressive is according to NFL Research, White is the only player with multiple games with 10+ tackles and at least three sacks in his career since 2000.
White's performance ignited the defense who after the Falcons' first drive of the second half, only gave up three more points. Atlanta ended up 6-for-15 on third down with all six of their conversions coming in the first half. Players stepped up at every level from there. Fellow inside linebacker Lavonte David had a big third-down tackle for loss early in the fourth quarter that forced a Falcons punt. Rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. broke up a pass intended for Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley in the end zone. Heck, cornerback Jamel Dean had two tackles for loss.
The Bucs also managed seven passes defensed – which is part of what made the first half so frustrating. There were a couple near-interceptions and you have to think if the Bucs come down with even one of them, that first half looks a lot different. There were no turnovers in the ball game whatsoever, actually. It's the first game since Week 1 against the Saints that the Bucs' defense hasn't had a takeaway. Yet, they managed to get it done anyway, helping the offense by getting four three and outs in the second half along with a turnover on downs on the Falcons' last drive of the game.
3. Can't rely on the Comeback Kid every time.
All that being said, Arians said on Monday, you don't want to rely on that kind of comeback either. Just because Tom Brady can engineer these kinds of things doesn't mean you want him to.
"There's no doubt," Arians agreed. "I think first halves of ballgames, if it's 50-50, I love where we're at. The sense of urgency in the locker room at halftime – it was very calm by him. 'We've got the ball, let's go make a play.' Then, we go down and score. It lit a fire in the offense. Defensively, I was really disappointed when they answered that with another touchdown. I think our defense needs to re-evaluate themselves a little bit and get back to what we're supposed to be doing and what we're capable of doing."
Arians said immediately after the game that while he was happy the team won, they can't expect to start the way they did and have success in the postseason, especially.
"My comments to the team after the game [were], 'If we can play 30 minutes like that, why can't we play 60?' It's frustrating," said Arians. "We lost to the Chiefs and the Rams by three [points]. Both of those games spotting them [points] and playing this way. It's not going to happen. You're not going to beat those good teams playing this way. We've got to play better in the first half than we played today."
The good news is the Buccaneers started games earlier in the season pretty hot. The first drives of the game were almost automatic for the offense. Tight end Cam Brate said it's just a matter of getting back to that.
"It's going to be something we're going to have to figure out," said Brate after the game. "But yeah, with the guys in the locker room, we never think we're out of it."